I recently learned that Helen McGrath, my first agent and a devoted support of California Writers Club, passed away.
I was lucky enough to find the Mt. Diablo Branch of California Writers Club at the beginning of my career. That was some twenty-odd years ago and I was a bright-eyed, brand-new, and fairly intimidated new writer. Once I finally got up the nerve to attend a meeting, (no small feat) I met Helen McGrath.
Helen was one of the founding members of the club and attended all the meetings as well as served on the board in various capacities. But back then I didn’t know any of that. I only knew that she was a real, live literary agent and I was utterly awe-stuck at being that close to someone who was actually in the business. I can remember having Helen pointed out to me across the room but it was several meetings before I got the nerve up to ask someone to introduce me.
She was very kind.
I was really nervous.
She asked what I was working on.
I looked at my feet and mumbled, “Young adult romance.”
I waited for her to laugh, but she didn’t. She murmured some encouraging words before moving on to chat with someone else in the room.
A few months later CWC convinced me to take on the job of the club newsletter. This was pre-computer days which meant I gathered the news at meetings and over the phone and then did a cut-and-paste mock-up that needed to be printed out. Helen was in possession of one of those rarities, a copy machine. Once a month I would make the drive to her house to drop off the copy. She would make the copies and someone else would stamp and mail them. She had two big dogs that thought the world rose and set on her. They loved Kleenex and Helen would stuff her pockets with Kleenex and pretend not to notice when they would sneak up and try to steal one from her. Every time they succeeded she would just laugh and laugh. A big dog lover myself, the dogs made it easy for me to talk to her. Dogs I knew. Writing I was learning.
One day while I was wrestling with her dogs she asked me how I was doing on my novel. I gulped hard and told her it was finally done.
Then she asked those words that every writer wants to her from a respected professional in the business, “So when do I get to read it?”
I stuttered a bit, blushed a lot, and mumbled something about bringing it to the next meeting. Sure enough, at the next meeting she sought me out and asked for the manuscript. I handed it over, my heart very much in my hands.
The waiting for her response was agonizing. What if she didn’t like it? What if she did? When I went to drop off the newsletter the next month she found all sorts of things to talk about that had nothing to do with my manuscript. I was still too shy to speak up for myself. I finally gave up and turned to leave and she let me get the front door open before she called me back.
“I like it,” she said. “It’s good. I’d like to be your agent.” I floated home on that proverbial Cloud Nine.
Within a few months, she had sold my first novel for me.
During that waiting time between selling the book and waiting to see it in print, Helen invited me to my first ever author event, a huge publisher sponsored book launch in San Francisco. I don’t remember the name of the author or the name of the book that was being launched or even where it was held.
I do remember Helen telling me, “You need to get used to this. This is your life now.”
Thank you, Helen, for opening the door for me and so many other writers over the years.
Over the years I have had several agents:
HM was my very first agent for a single YA romance that only sold to Germany. I was so new and scared of everything in the business that when she took me on I was so grateful that I didn’t even research her or attempt to get with any other agents or anything. (Of course this was pre-Internet times too.) It was enough to get me started taking my writing seriously though and that was a good thing.
LC was my agent for an adult ghostwriting project. LC came with the project. I was hired by someone for a ghostwriting project and she and LC had a huge plan for how to make the client a new life via writing. She scared the heck out of me. She is now a big name agent for some big name clients and I am sure she doesn’t remember my name. I am fine with that.
R&J are the agents who sold Can I Pray With My Eyes Open for me. They were full of energy at the start of their business, wooed me over the fairly new Internet and bulletin boards and then went out of business after a few years. It was a learning experience for me and that is always a good thing.
KH sold Oliver’s Must-do List for me and was a tireless promoter of my work. Although she is no longer agenting I am proud to call her friend.
JR is my current extraordinary agent. When she took me on I felt like I had “made it” to an extent because I finally had a fabulous agent at a very big name agency. She had clout and negotiating skills that amazed me. She sold Hugging the Rock for me. Although I’ve given her a historical picture book a year or so ago, since then I’ve sent her nothing (because I had nothing in any shape to send her.) Granted, there was the wind-down time after HTR came out and then the great move and until this weekend, I thought that was okay.
All these years I thought a big part of the great writing quest was to get an agent, to get a great agent that you loved and felt understood you and would go to bat for you and get you wonderful contracts. And when you finally got said fabulous agent, life was good. I figured they would sometimes pester you for your new book but mostly wait patiently (taking care of other clients, of course) until I would send them something else to sell.
Sometimes I am so dense.
After a couple of conversations with other writers this week it dawned on if writers can dump agents then agents can dump writers. And one of the top reasons agents dump writers is that they aren’t giving them anything to sell. They aren’t working hard enough or producing enough to be worthwhile.
I already felt overwhelmed with life and the day job and not enough time to write but now I feel like if I don’t get my agent something soon, I could find myself walking the plank.
That scares me. A lot.
Hopefully enough to push the writing into high gear.